What Are the Implications of the 2016 Election for Multilateralism in US Foreign Policy?

Jason Pielemeier was a Practitioner-in-Residence at the Josef Korbel School in spring 2016. He serves as Special Advisor and Section Lead in the Multilateral and Global Affairs Directorate of the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. This Quickfacts was drafted prior to the inauguration of President Trump and reflects his personal views only, and not those of the State Department.


Key Takeaways:

  • President Trump has promised a more clear, consistent, and self-interested approach to foreign policy.
  • The consequences of such an approach for U.S. engagements in multilateral regimes will depend in large part on the depth and scope of its execution.
  • A serious and systematic assertion of an "America first" approach is likely to significantly alter the current world order, generating instability and conflict as existing norms and institutions are increasingly challenged.
  • A less disruptive alternative may yet emerge in which U.S. policy toward and within multilateral institutions remains relatively stable, albeit less influential.


President Trump's skepticism toward established multilateral arrangements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization demonstrate a willingness to question these arrangements and hint at a potentially radical re-ordering of the existing international system. However, contrary statements by key administration appointees indicate that an alternative, more traditional course may still be possible - especially if the President chooses to focus on domestic policy and delegate foreign policy decisions to his cabinet. These conflicting signals, as well as the relatively slow pace of the current transition, suggest that – at least in the near term – U.S. policy toward most multilateral organizations could remain static. A topical or institutional crisis, however, could provoke attention from and reconsideration by higher-level political appointees.

In the longer term, change is clearly on the horizon. As the Trump administration begins, it is worth considering how key themes expressed by the President since even before the campaign may apply to his foreign policy generally, with attention to its particular implications for multilateral institutions and arrangements. Three approaches merit particular attention: transactionalism; retrenchment; and institutional reform.


The single most consistent political theme articulated by Trump is the desire to (re-)negotiate deals in what he perceives to be America's interest. In the foreign policy realm, his continued pattern of putting options on the table – even those that counter traditionally bipartisan positions, like the One China policy or sanctions against Russia – illustrates a desire to reset negotiating terms so as to maximize U.S. leverage vis-a-vis particular countries. Of course, even where such a strategy succeeds in evoking near-term bilateral concessions, it simultaneously generates uncertainty and unpredictability, potentially undermining the overarching rule-based order that by-and-large works in America's favor. This approach will almost certainly be applied in the trade realm, where its consequences could be significant, although primarily economic in nature. In the multilateral context, this approach could result in a tendency to engage in vote trading – a practice long condemned, although not always shunned, by administrations of both parties as short-sighted, unprincipled, and not in the best interests of a stable global system.


A second consistent theme that Trump has articulated is his desire to withdraw from what he perceives as overextended foreign commitments in order to prioritize investment at home. His questioning of U.S. military support for Japan and Korea, and allies' financial commitments to organizations like NATO, clearly indicates a predilection toward isolationism. While Congress, and perhaps even some appointees, may exert counter-pressure against some of these "America first" impulses, especially in the security realm, Congress may abet other isolationist actions by decreasing funding for particular efforts (for example to mitigate climate change impacts abroad) or institutions (such as the United Nations). However this plays out, it is likely that U.S. government investment in development assistance, human rights policy, and "soft power" initiatives like cultural exchanges are likely to be curtailed. In turn, international organizations associated with these activities will fall in priority and status.

Institutional Reform

Finally, Trump has used a broad brush to paint many existing policies and institutions as poorly structured, outdated, and ineffective. This skepticism toward the structure of the international system echoes, in some ways, traditional Republican skepticism toward "big government" and seems likely to extend particularly to multilateral organizations – with the UN being a particular bugaboo. That said, it is possible that upon taking office he and others will come to appreciate the important roles that many of these organizations play. That might be especially likely for more recent, "creative multilateral organizations" (or complex governance) that are built among like-minded countries and groups, and typically are flexible arrangements, involving significantly less overhead and bureaucracy. Examples include the Proliferation Security Initiative, the Community of Democracies, the Freedom Online Coalition, the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Even in this more cooperative scenario, it is possible that the incoming administration will seek to impose institutional reforms as a quid-pro-quo for continued support.

Implications of this Approach for US Interests

As indicated above, after an initial period of relative stasis, there are two basic scenarios that could emerge as the administration begins to develop and assert its own foreign policy approach. If the incoming administration takes a systematically transactionalist, "America first" approach, the consequences will be significant and destabilizing. Specific, highly-visible changes in positions on topical, "political" issues like climate change and non-proliferation are likely to undermine existing agreements and understandings, leading other countries to re-examine their own commitments. Meanwhile, the general approach – especially if accompanied with simplistic rhetoric crafted for domestic audiences without a nuanced appreciation of international interpretations – will erode confidence in a much broader and deeper (if less visible) system of treaties and multilateral arrangements. The consequences of abandoning the existing order may not manifest immediately, but the damage may well be irreparable. To pick just one hypothetical example, a slackening of U.S. multilateral leadership on intellectual property will likely embolden efforts by developing states to weaken domestic enforcement and challenge existing international norms that by-and-large favor U.S. companies. Similar scenarios would likely play out across issues as diverse as arms control, cyber stability, and counter-narcotics.

Even when enjoying relative good will and influence, the United States has to work hard to advance its agenda in multilateral institutions where it often runs up against developing world and regional voting blocks. A "retrenchment" approach will lessen incentives for countries to follow our lead or even to negotiate with the United States, unless they can identify clear win-win scenarios ex ante. This will be especially likely in those areas (like trade) where the administration seeks to affirmatively engage, since President Trump has clearly stated that he will only seek deals that are narrowly in "America's interests".

Contrary to the message of the campaign, there is a lot of evidence that without United States leadership (politically, financially, and militarily) of the existing international order, other governments will be further tempted to cheat on or renege completely on their own commitments. At the very least, other countries will be more likely to seek quid-pro-quos in exchange for cooperation they may have previously felt shamed or otherwise pressured to provide. There will also be corresponding incentives for smaller and medium-sized countries to look to regional arrangements and/or regional powers to secure their immediate economic and security priorities. Meanwhile, revisionists to the global order - including authoritarian states, regional powers, and even terrorist groups - that are already inclined to test the boundaries of the existing system will grow bolder. While consensus may remain and even be strengthened on common threats like terrorism, such an approach is likely to significantly weaken U.S. influence (and increase the sway of others with competing agendas) in areas such as democracy promotion, human rights, sanctions, and trade.

Conclusion: A "Quiet Continuity" Alternative

The best-case alternative to this "retrenchment" scenario, is one where the President's rhetoric – while remaining disruptive – is by-and-large not followed through in practice. In this alternative "quiet continuity" scenario, the United States will remain committed to and engaged in most multilateral institutions through its professional diplomatic and military organs, notwithstanding the President's rhetoric and occasional forays into the foreign policy domain. While U.S. leadership will be more muted, and the administration may choose to withdraw from certain organizations (UNESCO, UN Human Rights Council, etc.), this will not represent a change in kind from previous oscillations in U.S. internationalism. Meanwhile, opportunities will exist to continue to exercise leadership through creative multilateral organizations, which require relatively little financial and political capital and eschew the bureaucratic and political baggage of many UN organizations. Posturing on certain issues like security cooperation and trade could even extract additional commitments and leadership from other states, just as the President has promised. While this is undoubtedly the less disruptive scenario, it will still generate a degree of uncertainty and instability that could – depending on other developments – lead to radical and irreversible changes to the existing multilateral order.